You’re Not Imagining It—Winter Could Actually Be Driving You to Drink
There are so many occasions where it may be tempting to enjoy a cocktail or a generous pour of wine during the winter season—think of all those holiday parties. But a new study finally provides some scientific insight into why so many of us drink more than usual during the wintertime, and it has nothing to do with holiday cheer.
Cold, dark weather could be the culprit, pushing those suffering through harsh winters to reach for a bottle for comfort. According to new research published in the journal Hepatology last month, people who live in the coldest regions of the world are actually drinking more alcohol during the winter than those who do not.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh's Division of Gastroenterology—the team analyzed data provided by the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization collected from more than 190 countries in total. They found that as temperatures and total hours of daylight dropped, average alcohol consumption increased. Harsh climate factors were also found to be associated with higher levels of binge drinking and cirrhosis of the liver in these communities.
“It’s something that everyone has assumed for decades, but no one has scientifically demonstrated it,” senior author Ramon Bataller, M.D., Ph.D. wrote in a press release for the University of Pittsburgh. “Why do people in Russia drink so much? Why in Wisconsin? Everybody assumes that’s because it’s cold.”
The trend holds true in the United States—a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that areas with the highest levels of alcohol consumption are also places that experience colder winters.
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And the reason people reach for an alcoholic drink more during harsh weather? It's because alcohol really does makes us feel more comfortable in the cold. Alcohol acts as what scientists call a "vasodilator," or an agent that increases our blood flow to our skin (think about the "flush" some people get when drinking). And that blood helps the body feel warmer.
It also means, however, that you are much more likely to consume alcohol in excess during the winter—which can be dangerous for your health. Recent research has suggested that federal health guidelines for alcohol consumption (currently one to two drinks per day) are much too high, and that increased alcohol consumption could have a direct effect on mortality rates.
Research suggests that even as little as seven drinks per week could lower life expectancy by six months.
According to authors behind the Hepatology report, sunlight may be the catalyst for binge drinking: fewer hours of sunlight each day are correlated with higher rates of depression, and depression is one of the most apparent risk factors for binge drinking.
The researchers also indicated that they tried to take religious and cultural influences on alcohol consumption into consideration—but these influences could have affected the results. More research is needed to draw conclusions on how seasonal elements could influence depression and the correlation of binge drinking, as well.
But taking the time to ration the amount you drink, during the holidays or otherwise, could directly influence your health. Just being mindful about the weather's influence on your mood can help you identify other ways of coping with seasonal depression—like the foods in your pantry, for example.